It’s easier to be a U.S. senator than to teach 9th grade science in New York City, at least according to retiring Sen. Mark Dayton. He called the teaching gig—his first job out of college in 1969—“the toughest job I’ve ever had.”
The Minnesota Democrat, who chose not to seek a second term, was one of 79 members of the outgoing 109th Congress identified by the National Education Association as a former educator.
In honor of American Education Week, observed last month, the 3.2 million-member teachers’ union compiled a list of the one-time superintendents, school administrators, college professors, teachers, and others who at some point swapped the classroom for the legislative hearing room. Many of them agreed to provide the NEA with a statement on how their experiences in education informed their work in Congress.
Some lawmakers said their backgrounds had inspired them to introduce or support education-related legislation. For instance, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., told the NEA that “being a teacher made me more aware of the challenges teachers face with regard to discipline, supplies, and special education.” He said that perspective led him to sign on to bills giving tax breaks to teachers and a measure calling for more funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Others said their time in the classroom had helped them learn how to collaborate with others—and cope with some of the more challenging personalities they have encountered in Congress. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said that her former life as a preschool teacher was the “best experience I had for being a senator” because it taught her “patience and how to deal with bullies.”
Others recall their teaching experience as pivotal to their careers. During his 16 terms in Congress, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the outgoing chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has helped steer a lot of federal aid to his state and shepherded a major highway bill through Congress.
Still, he called his stint as a 5th grade teacher at a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs school in rural Alaska his “proudest professional achievement.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2006 edition of Education Week